Stunning and impressive, the largest grouse species in the world make their home here in Strathspey. Favouring the enchanting Scots Pine woodland with a mixed bilberry and heather field layer, capercaillie have become increasingly illusive in Scotland. Over time their habitat has become fragmented and has significantly reduced in size. We only have 1% of our native Caledonian Scots Pine forest left; one of the largest remaining remnants lies within the reserve here at RSPB Abernethy

Male and female capercaillie illustrations. Image by Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)

After being driven to extinction due to significant habitat loss and persecution, a successful re-introduction programme in the 1830's re-established the population in Scotland. Capercaillie numbers then began to decline once more in the 1970's. Recent national surveys estimate the population has remained at between 1000 and 2000 birds, with the current estimate at 1114 individuals (2015-16 survey). Their range has contracted over time so that now most individuals are located in Strathspey (Wilkinson, 2018).

During the breeding season, male capercaillie will perform impressive displays to attract females, which we call 'lekking'. Male birds will gather at clearings in the forest early in the morning to present these displays, whilst the females watch on eagerly around the forest edges to choose their preferred mate. Males will mate with multiple females, and the females have the responsibility of rearing the young chicks. 

Recording capercaillie numbers around Strathspey is really important and helps us monitor the effectiveness of the conservation work on the estates. I recently had the opportunity to assist the RSPB wardens on one of these capercaillie lek counts; and what an experience it was! This involved camping out in the woodland overnight at the edge of an open bog to detect and record any activity. I was in my hide before the arrival of dusk, ready and silent, so as not to disturb the birds. Quietly listening and observing the trees disappear into complete darkness as the light faded, I began to hear birds flying in to roost in the distance. It was a blissfully clear sky with thousands of stars lighting up an otherwise very dark night.

At 4am, as dawn approached, I got set up on my chair and was ready to observe once more. I think I may have snoozed for a short while, however awoke to the very enigmatic and unusual sounds of a male capercaillie making strange grunting and popping noises. It was still pitch black but he sounded close. As the sun began to rise I could faintly make out a creature in front of my hide – I was right, he was only about 20 meters in front of me! The sound of his wings beating as he performed flutter jumps was simply mesmerising. As the morning wore on, I recorded a number of hens flying in to perch on trees around the clearing, to check out the males. There was another male lekking off to the right, and then, to my amazement and shock, a third appeared silently about 10 meters away from my hide! I then really was in stealth mode and didn’t dare move a muscle for about 15 minutes. He didn’t really get involved in any lekking activity, fanning his tail once or twice and flying off, I believe he was just there to check out the competition – which was so far very tough! The two lekking males continued their impressive performances for around 3 hours in total - and I hope that their hard work paid off. 

Male capercaillie. Image by Louise Greenhorn (rspb-images.com).

These astonishing birds birds have declined over the years due to the following reasons; flying into high fences, disturbance, climate change and changing habitat conditions. Over time, conservation efforts to protect the capercaillie have included marking fences to make their existence more obvious, or complete fence removal, to reduce fatalities of bird collisions. We continue to educate members of the public to reduce disturbance, particularly keeping dogs on leads. In previous years, we have opened the Osprey Centre at Loch Garten up for Caper Watch, to encourage the sensible viewing of capercaillie and minimise human disturbance. Unfortunately this year Caper Watch is on hold whilst we, alongside our partners, work to find a new opportunity for public capercaillie viewing – hopefully in time for next season. This is mainly down to the fact that capercaillies are now rarely seen in front of the visitor centre, and it is our legal obligation to ensure that any watching facility does not negatively impact the birds.

The RSPB are currently working in partnership on an exciting and ambitious habitat restoration project called Cairngorms Connect. It comprises a 200 year vision to restore peatlands, wetlands and rivers, and to restore native woodlands to their natural limits. In the next 200 years on Abernethy NNR, we aim to double the size of the Scots Pine woodland. This will be beneficial to the thousands of species that make this magical reserve their home, and will undoubtedly benefit capercaillie in the process - with 50% of Scotland’s lekking capercaillie found within the Cairngorms Connect forests. A larger forest will be less suited to generalist predators of capercaillie, such as foxes and crows. Forest restoration will also strengthen the links to neighbouring capercaillie habitat in Glenmore and beyond, which will increase the carrying capacity of birds. 

Scots Pine, Abernethy. Image by Andy Hay (rspb-images.com).

If you want to help us protect this incredible species, please see the attached advice (below) and follow these guidelines when looking for capercaillie. We strongly advise that the best chance of seeing capercaillie without disturbing them is to walk on the forest tracks, which they visit to eat grit, and to avoid walking off-track. Thank you for your patience and understanding, and thank you for reading my blog!

2627.Guidance for Responsible Capercaillie Watching.pdf

Reference:

Nicholas I. Wilkinson, Mark A. Eaton, Gareth Marshall & Sysan Haysom (2018): The population status of Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus in Scotland during winter 2015-16, Bird Study (https://doi.org/10.1080/00063657.2018.1439448).

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